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Learning by Doing: How to Train Seminary Students for Ministry

A photo of a seminary student studying a Bible in between pictures of a church and a brain, representing training for ministry.

Growing up, my family had a weekend farm just north of the town where we lived. As a kid, it was a great place to explore nature and learn many life skills. It was on that farm, for example, where I learned how to drive a manual transmission even before I could legally drive on a street. I started by first watching my dad drive the truck from the spot next to him on the front bench. Then I began sitting in front of my dad while he drove around the farm. Then my dad let me get behind the wheel as he offered guidance—and I ground the gears and ran into mesquite bushes. But each time I drove, I learned the skills to drive a truck. And I got better.

My dad wouldn’t have used this terminology was tapping into what educational theorists call the “psychomotor domain.” He was giving me hands-on instruction and then letting me actually learn by doing.

I’m convinced that pastoral training, too, can benefit from attention to the psychomotor domain.

What is the psychomotor domain?

The focus in the psychomotor (or behavioral) domain is on bodily or physical skills: the movements, dexterity, reflect actions, motor control, coordination, and even interpretive movements needed to perform a specific task. While much has been written and analyzed regarding both the cognitive (knowing) and affective (feeling) domains of learning, it was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that educational theorists started describing the psychomotor domain in tangible terms.1 But the idea of the psychomotor domain has existed as long as the knowledge of how to perform a specific trade or practical skill—hunting, farming, building, painting—has been passed down from one generation to the next.

Many ministry skills, too, have a physical component. Learning how to teach a Bible study, preach a sermon, lead a worship service, perform a baptism, officiate the Lord’s Supper, or even share the gospel with someone all require a focus on correctly or accurately performing a skill in a real-life context.

Churches and seminaries in partnership can serve as a link between theory and practice. The academics of theological education can help to lay the foundation for a biblical worldview and the basic tools of the ministry trade, but the theoretical needs to be married with the practical in the leadership laboratory in the field of the local church. God calls ministry students to seminary to learn, but a seminary’s values and curriculum need to reflect this balance between theory and practice. When seminaries continue to collaborate with the local church and ministry organizations in developing the next generation of ministry leaders, they develop leaders who are sound both doctrinally and practically.

Seminary Professors, Meet Your On-Call Research Assistant

Learning happens best when a ministry student is active and engaged in what is being taught. Someone can read about how to ride a bicycle and can even watch someone else ride a bicycle, but a student has not really learned how to ride a bicycle until she or he actually climbs on the bicycle and starts pedaling. In the psychomotor domain, learning happens with the student tries something different, initiates a new project, practices a new skill, stretches her or his limits, exceeds perceived limitations, overcoming obstacles, perseveres through difficulty, or struggles with an unsolved task. And there is no greater motivator for students than when they get opportunities to perform a skill and to get it right.

Broadly speaking, learning in the psychomotor domain advances through four stages:

  1. Observing: In the first stage, a student watches the action of a more experienced person performing the skill.
  2. Imitating: In the second stage, a student moves from merely observing the skill to copying the skill of a more experienced person. It is probably not automatic or smooth at first, but the first steps of learning a new skill are taking shape.
  3. Practicing: In the third stage, a student starts to repeat the skill over and over until it starts to become more automatic and smooth.
  4. Adapting: In the final stage, students fine-tunes the skill and make minor adjustments to perfect the skill and to make it their own.

In each stage, the role of the more experienced person (the teacher) shifts from a model at the observing and imitating stages to a coach or mentor at the practicing and adapting stages.

Growth through challenging opportunities

Learning any new skill does not come automatically. Ministry students learn a new skill by stepping out of their comfort zone and trying new things. When placed in these new experiences, ministry students have the chance to be curious, to test themselves, to make some mistakes (in a forgiving environment where it is okay to make mistakes and not be embarrassed), but to keep moving forward in the learning journey beyond familiar boundaries and into new territory. This new territory requires new “maps” and new skills. Experimenting with new concepts and new ways of doing things is at the heart of the cycle of continual learning and meaning-making. When ministry students merely keep doing what they know they can do, no real change takes place.

Leadership development experts James Kouzes and Barry Posner state it this way:

Challenging opportunities often bring forth skills and abilities that people don’t know they have. … Maintaining the status quo is the breeding ground for mediocrity. … If you are going to learn to lead, then you need to be restless when it comes to the status quo, adopt the leadership attitude of looking for opportunities to challenge your skills and abilities, and be willing to experiment with changing the business-as-usual environment. … If you want to develop your leadership capabilities, you need to take the initiative and volunteer for assignments that stretch you beyond your current comfort zone.2

These challenging opportunities are seen specifically in four areas in life.

  • The first is novelty—where a student encounters experiences requiring new skills and new ways of understanding.
  • The second is difficult goals, where a student encounters experiences requiring a different way of work instead of just working harder.
  • The third is conflict, where a student must work through a conflict with another person to understand the other person’s perspective.
  • Fourth comes hardship, where a student deals with a loss, failure, and disappointment, stimulating a search for new meaning and understanding.
  • All these challenging experiences create “disequilibrium” in our students, causing them to question the adequacy of their previous skills and approaches.3

As a teacher or a mentor of ministry students, you need to be able to safely lead your students out of their comfort zones to grow their skills. It is riding a bicycle without training wheels, jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool without floaties, giving a sermon in front of the class, singing or playing a solo in front of the worship service. It is speaking a foreign language, going on a mission trip, sharing the gospel with a neighbor. It is only in these challenging experiences your ministry students are required to develop new capacities or advance their ways of understanding which ultimately results in growth.

Your ministry students also need to have opportunities to have lots of practice and to be in a safe environment where mistakes can be tolerated. It is in practice where the student’s skills get sharper, quicker, and smoother. As a teacher or mentor working in the psychomotor domain, you may even want to consider “rewarding” certain kinds of mistakes. This could be mistakes that show that your students are attempting new skills or approaches, expressing new ideas, assembling old ideas together in innovative ways, or otherwise taking risks. This will help to create a safe and supportive environment for learning to take place.

Feedback on practice

Feedback on this practice is the only way your ministry students will know if they are making progress from what they already can do to the new or improved skill. Your role as the teacher or mentor of ministry students is to set up situations in which your students can receive intentional and constructive feedback. You are not merely judging the final product or performance.

Sometimes it is very clear if your students did or did not perform the skill correctly. An example of this is in archery. Either the archer hits the bullseye or not. But other times it is not as clear. Maybe in swimming the backstroke, a swimmer is not drowning in the pool; however, he or she is expending a great deal of needless energy. Some slight tweaks on the swimmer’s technique could make all the difference for a smoother (and less tiring) swim.

Feedback is important, because practicing wrong behaviors without correction become habits that are counterproductive in the long run. The lack of constructive feedback can also result in disillusioned students who only get frustrated by their lack of progress. As a teacher or mentor of ministry students, you do not want your students practicing bad habits on a particular skill (which get much harder to break over time) and you do not want your students to be frustrated.

Eventually, you as a teacher or mentor want to develop students who self-assess, who judge their own learning. As a ministry student develops a skill, she or he may start experiencing internal feedback independent of external feedback. Internal feedback is the message that an athlete’s own muscles and joints send them; internal feedback is the sense students develop as to whether a skill was performed properly or a learning goal was met. Instead of the teacher or mentor having to give all the feedback, both praise and correction, the ministry student starts decision-making and problem-solving the task on her or his own. This is the self-reliant achiever who demonstrates high competence, confidence, and motivation. These students need less supervision or praise as long as they know how well they are doing.

Reflecting on learning experiences

It is not just facing (and overcoming) a challenging experience or merely practicing a skill over and over that ultimately results in learning. Impactful learning comes when a ministry student practices the new skill, receives specific feedback on how to perform the skill better, and then reflects on what he or she has just done. This is called an Action–Observation–Reflection model.

  • Action asks the question “What did you do?” This is thinking about the actual experience itself.
  • Observation asks the questions “What happened? What were the results? What was the impact on others?” This is thinking about ways to deal with the experience (i.e., problem-solving).
  • Reflection asks the questions, “How do you look at it now? How do you feel about it now?” This is examining assumptions, beliefs, and values about the experience or problem.
  • It is difficult to learn from challenging experiences and fundamentally change without engaging in some kind of reflection.4 The role of the teacher or mentor is to create space for reflection time and reflection activities for our ministry students both during and after the learning cycle.

Call to obedience

At the end of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus issues this challenge to his hearers:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (Matt 7:24–27)

As important as knowledge (the cognitive domain) and emotions (the affective domain) are in the lives of your ministry students, neither one of these is the telos of Christian education. It is one thing for your students to know what is right (which can unfortunately descend into mere Bible trivia) or even to affirm what is right (which can unfortunately descend into mere emotionalism or even emotional manipulation). It is another thing for your students to actually do what is right. The goal of Christian education is life transformation in the lives of your students where obedience is practiced. Your role as a Christian educator or mentor is to create an environment for the Holy Spirit to bring this obedience to life, where the image of Christ is formed in your ministry students as they grow as disciples. The desire is for them to grow in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22–23) as they pray, evangelize, worship, teach, and serve (all of which have psychomotor aspects). And as students move up in the psychomotor level in these endeavors, more fruitfulness should be seen in ministry students as a way of life (habit) and an expression of their heart.

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  1. Such as Elizabeth Jane Simpson in 1966, Ravindrakumar Dave in 1970, and Anita Harrow in 1972.
  2. See James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, Learning Leadership: The Five Fundamentals of Becoming an Exemplary Leader (San Francisco, CA: Wiley, 2016), 102–103, 105–106.
  3. See Ellen Van Velsor and Cynthia McCauley, “Our View of Leadership Development,” in The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development, eds. Cynthia McCauley and Ellen Van Velsor, 2nd ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 7–9.
  4. Richard Hughes, Robert Ginnett, and Gordon Curphy, Leadership, 3rd ed. (Boston, MA: Irwin McGraw-Hill, 1999), 87.
Written by
George Hillman

Dr. George M. Hillman Jr. serves as the vice president for education and professor of educational ministries and leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary. George came to DTS with years of pastoral experience in churches and parachurch organizations in Texas and Georgia. A graduate of Texas A&M University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, George has a passion for education, spiritual formation, and leadership development. He is a rabid college football fan and loves good barbecue. He is married and has one grown daughter.

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Written by George Hillman